Every year in the run up to India’s Independence Day we are reminded of the events and people who played a significant role in taking India to freedom from the rule of the British Raj. We remember our history lessons about how women played an active role in the movement to boycott British goods and pave the way for Swadeshi.
In the past month, quite by chance I read four books which described what England and women in England were going through during almost the same period—the first half of the 1940s. It was something that perhaps most of us are not so familiar with, and made me want to know more.
In the 1930s, social roles were clearly defined in English society. A woman’s place was in the home, a man’s place was out at work. It was acceptable for women to work outside the home if they had no family to look after, but they were paid less than men were — even when doing the same jobs, and most would have expected to leave as soon as they married, or when they had their first child.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and in the following years, men in England joined up for military service and there was a big vacuum in the labour force in essential services. This was filled by women. Unmarried women between 20 and 30 were called up to join a variety of services from working in factories manufacturing armaments, to those on the fringes of the war front. Among these was the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) that recruited female volunteers for driving, clerical and general duties including anti-aircraft searchlights. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) that maintained ships of the Royal Navy and were involved in some of the most secret planning for D-Day. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) that was used for maintaining and flying barrage balloons, and the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service which was on duty through the German bombing “blitzkrieg” (lightning war) of 1940-1941.
Many of these were dangerous jobs, which carried the very real risk of death or serious injury and many at first thought that the jobs were not only unsuitable for women but that they did not possess the physical strength needed to carry out the tasks which were being asked of them. This was to be proven wrong time and again. And there are many tales that tell of heroic feats of these women.
The books tell stories from the point of view of ordinary women who had never stepped out of their home, and how their new roles were the leveller of the very-English class distinctions. Working class girls who worked as domestic help in mansions, now worked shoulder-to-shoulder with genteel middle class girls as ambulance drivers and munition factory workers. Ladies with large estates took in evacuees from all backgrounds, and turned their manicured gardens into food-growing plots, while lawns were dug up to make Anderson shelters in which to stay during air raids. Timid girls from villages who were skilled in living frugally were appointed by the Food Ministry as Home Front Economists and Kitchen Economists to give talks and demonstrations to women’s groups on how to conserve food rations and fuel.
Cargo ships carrying vital supplies imported from the colonies were being bombed on high seas. It was a time of shortages, rationing, hoarding, and black-marketing, it was also a time for austerity—managing with less. There were coupons for food, for petrol, and clothes. Fashion was dictated not by French designers but by the Board of Trade; hemlines were decreed to be shorter to save cloth, and there were a limited number of basic, no-extra-frills styles, with Utility Labels which could be bought using coupons. Various schemes gave advice on recycling or making clothes last longer, two of these were the Make Do and Mend, and Sew and Save, schemes for which women were called upon to share ideas and experiences.
The stories tell of lasting friendships in a fragile time… Knitting together while waiting for an emergency call out; driving through darkness of curfew and blackout, through rubble of collapsed buildings, pulling out people from the debris, bonding by the uncertainty that they never knew if they would come back after a call; sharing picket duty during the hours of darkness to stop anyone from pilfering petrol.
The stories also reveal how the new roles raised the self-esteem of the women by allowing them to become an integral part of the overall war effort in every way. Gone were the housewives of the 1920’s and 30’s and in their place were an army of skilled and resilient workers, farmers, builders, and defenders—women with gumption and spirit. Women whose tales need to be shared.
Coincidentally, one of the last living female pilots of World War 2, Mary Ellis died on 24 July this year at the age of 101. She was a pilot of the Air Transport Auxiliary service, and delivered Spitfires and bombers to the front line during the war. Having flown about 1000 planes during her service, she once again flew a Spitfire for 15 minutes at the age of 100! Way to go!